‘Children of the dust’
Amerasians turn to DNA testing to find their GI fathers
In a rural, postwar Vietnamese village, Jannies Nguyen remembers as a girl regularly paddling out in a boat to peer at her reflection in the water and try to picture her father, a U.S. serviceman she had never met. Her mother said she looked just like him.
Nguyen is one of tens of thousands of children born to Vietnamese mothers and GI fathers during or shortly after the Vietnam War. Veterans left behind these children, called “Amerasians”—some half-black, some half-white—and then denied or tried to forget them. Some never knew they existed.
Nguyen’s parents secretly married, but war separated them. After her father left Vietnam, Communist officials threatened her mother, and she moved with Nguyen to a remote village, burning pictures, letters, even her daughter’s birth certificate—anything that would trace them to an American soldier and jeopardize their lives. She knew Nguyen’s father by a nickname and only remembered the first two letters of his last name.
For more than 40 years, that man remained a mystery.
But in the last decade, DNA testing has brought new possibilities to Amerasians like Nguyen. The proliferation of inexpensive, direct-to-consumer genetic testing is allowing many of them to find their GI fathers, who are now hitting their mid-60s or early 70s. Some Amerasians are finally gaining U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families after decades of waiting. Hundreds still remain in Vietnam with renewed hope that DNA testing will provide the proof they need to come to America.
Three years ago Nguyen, 46, took a DNA test with Ancestry.com. Within months she had a second-cousin match, a Florida man she found on Facebook, and began messaging. In July Nguyen received a text from a man who confirmed he is her father.
That text has led to many more conversations. In August Nguyen’s father visited her Oklahoma City home and attended her son’s football game. Nguyen says, “He cries a lot. He keeps telling me he is sorry and he didn’t mean to leave us behind.”
The Vietnamese called Amerasian children bui doi, or “children of the dust,” and treated them as unwanted leftovers from an invading army in post-war Vietnam. Amerasian children endured abject poverty and harsh discrimination. Nguyen’s mother shaved Nguyen’s curly hair, and she was not allowed to attend school during her early years. Other children spat on, taunted, and beat her up almost daily; at age 10 she taught herself boxing so she could fight back.
More than 3,000 Vietnam orphans left in 1975 during the tumultuous final days of war. Others came to the United States after Congress enacted legislation in 1987 granting them special immigration status. Since then, nearly 25,000 Amerasians and more than 55,000 family members have immigrated to the United States. Still, fewer than 5 percent have found their fathers.
When Nguyen and her mother immigrated to Oklahoma City in 1990, she remembers looking around the airport for her father. But Nguyen’s mother discouraged her desire to find him: “She didn’t want to mess up his life.” Meanwhile, her father presumed they had died when reports came that a bomb wiped out the region where they lived. He still attempted to find them and told Nguyen he always thought, “What if?”
Nguyen’s experiences compelled her to help others. In 2014, she started Amerasian Children of Vietnam Veterans. It is one of a handful of advocacy groups that host get-togethers, offer assistance with genetic testing, and raise funds for DNA kits and related costs for poor Vietnamese Amerasians. Nguyen’s group is currently assisting 50 Amerasians in the United States and 200 in Vietnam.
Ex-Navy man and retired CPA Paul Wickman is also helping. He co-runs a private Facebook group called Amerasian Children Looking for Their American GI Fathers. Sometimes DNA results are confusing or inconclusive, and Wickman helps Amerasians piece together their family tree using military records, obituaries, social media, and internet sleuthing. The process is complicated, “but without DNA testing it would be virtually hopeless,” he said.
Despite DNA proof, some GI fathers still deny their paternity and reject their Amerasian children. Wickman told me about one serviceman in his early 80s who has refused multiple restricted-delivery letters from his Amerasian child. He was married during the Vietnam War and has never told his wife about his infidelity.
Still, most veterans are reaching old age and want to rectify old war wounds. On Wickman’s Facebook page, one man recently posted a video of his girlfriend meeting her father with a caption: “My girlfriend and I finally found … her family through DNA. [She was] born in the Vietnam conflict to an American father she never knew. Today after 47 years they united and embraced for the very first time.” —M.J.